Election 2014: Gibson and Eldridge talk Catskills issues

On Tuesday, Nov. 4, voters go to the polls to decide who will win the race for New York's 19th Congressional District: incumbent Republican Congressman Chris Gibson or Democratic challenger Sean Eldridge.

Gibson, who was first elected in 2010, once represented a territory that was solidly Republican. But after New York's congressional lines were redrawn in 2012, his district shifted to include some of the left-leaning Hudson Valley lowlands once represented by former Congressman Maurice Hinchey.

The new 19th District is now a swing district. Democrat Barack Obama won it in the 2012 presidential race, but Republican Gibson beat Democrat Julian Schreibman for its congressional seat that same year.

Gibson, a decorated Army veteran, has followed his district's shift to the left. In 2012, he withdrew his support from Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform Taxpayer Protection Pledge. He was rated as the most liberal Republican in Congress by the National Journal, is supported by the Environmental Defense Fund, and enjoys a 41 percent approval rating among Democratic voters in the district, according to the New York Times. At the same time, Gibson remains staunchly conservative on most national issues: he opposes the Affordable Care Act, supports more restrictions on abortion, and voted to sue President Obama over implementation of the new health care law in July. 

Eldridge, on the Democratic ticket, is a new breed of politician: he is just 28 years old, was born in Canada, and is proudly and openly gay, married to multi-millionaire Chris Hughes, one of the original founders of Facebook. The couple moved to the hamlet of Shokan in the Ulster County town of Olive in 2013, buying a $2-million-dollar house there.

While he is traditionally Democratic on some issues--he is a vocal defender of gay rights and abortion rights--Eldridge has an independent streak. He opposes corporate campaign contributions and touts the fact that he is a gun owner. 

Eldridge is using his wealth to provide capital directly to local businesses in the district he wants to win. (Politico calls that a "novel tactic.") In 2011, he founded Hudson River Ventures, a small business investment firm that has funded local businesses such as Bread Alone Bakery in Boiceville and Prohibition Distillery in Roscoe.

With less than a day to go, the race appears to be Gibson's.

Right now, Gibson has a decisive lead on Eldridge, with 58 points to Eldridge's 35 points, according to the latest poll from Time Warner Cable News and Siena College

The Watershed Post interviewed both Gibson and Eldridge about key Catskills issues, including NYC's watershed, gun rights, universal broadband, hydraulic fracturing, and economic development. Here they are in their own words. 

NYC Watershed 

The 19th Congressional District encompasses the New York City watershed, a system of reservoirs and land owned by NYC in upstate communities. Disagreements over the amount of property taxes that the city's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) should pay to Catskills municipalities have often ended up in court. Flooding, turbid water releases, and funding for economic development are hot issues in the region. During his time in Congress, Gibson founded a Watershed Advisory Group to discuss them.


The Watershed Advisory Group has representatives from the five counties and 41 towns in the watershed, and then from a number of towns that are below the dam and that are impacted by watershed decisions. We now have the opportunity to advocate for them, and that's what we've been doing.

What they're looking for is, first of all, protection of people and property. We put a focus on that. The group spans the entire area, groups from both parties and some from no party. We have been advocating with the city and the state to bring more resources to protect people and property.

There's been a federal role in this by way of Sandy. After Hurricanes Irene and Lee, I teamed up with Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont, and we led the Hurricanes Irene and Lee recovery task force that ended up bringing monies to our communities to recover from the storm.

For the first time in history, we did more than that, in that after Sandy, of the $60 billion dollars that the taxpayers provided for this super storm, $10 billion of it went towards mitigation. Towards recognizing the changing weather patterns we have, and taking action, now, to protect people and property.

You're seeing it in your local news outlets in the form of the New York Rising Program. That money is largely your money. It's our federal taxpayer dollars that come by way of the state. The Sandy Aid bill made a big difference.

In terms of leadership and voice, I've met with [New York State Department of Conservation] officials and DEP officials, bringing a focus on a number of things. First of all, the resources: the issue of what kind of tenant are they? What kind of team player are they?

The point I made to them in my bilateral discussions is, "Look: You guys have a [$3] billion dollar budget. Substantial. Why would you pursue through legal action something that may get you thousands, possibly millions of dollars, when the scale of your budget is [$3] billion? Because you're creating enormous ill-will by doing this."

Because when you sue us, when you sue our small towns, what ends up happening is, we can't complete. You lawyer up, and you go blind on paperwork, our towns can't compete with this. What ultimately ends up happening is our towns end up settling. And when they settle, and New York City ends up with a lower [tax] assessment, what in practical terms happens is that our towns have to either cut services, or they have to raise taxes for hardworking families in our communities.

And this creates enormous ill-will with the city.

I'm hopeful that they'll cease and desist. It doesn't make sense. This is the same entity that is now providing millions of dollars protecting people and property. They're trying, obviously, to get in our good graces. Why, then, do you take two or three steps back by going after, percentage-wise, a small amount of money through legal action?

Also, there are the below-the-dam issues. Residents of the lower Esopus are interested in remedying issues of turbidity. Then, also, not just in the lower Esopus, the same issues that you see in Hancock and Deposit and Schoharie and Middleburgh and Esperance. These are below-the-dam issues. We're talking about releases, talking about protection of people and property below the dam.

I feel like we've made some traction on that, by really putting a spotlight on that. There hasn't really been a focus in this issue area. We should speak with one voice.


This is certainly an issue I hear about quite a bit, particularly where I live, in Shokan. I'm just north of the Ashokan Reservoir. Obviously our district includes all of the watershed. So I think it is critical that all of our elected officials, from our members of Congress to our local elected officials and our county executives, are providing a voice for people who live in the watershed. Obviously there have been many issues over the last couple of years, whether it's been issues around flooding, or the turbidity, of economic development and making sure that New York City is being a helpful partner for economic development.

I think we certainly have work to do. New York City needs to do a better job of listening to the folks who live in our community. My role as a member of Congress would be to help provide a voice and be a loud advocate for folks right in our community in the watershed that I live in, and to make sure that New York City is listening.

This has been a long-term discussion, and New York City needs to be keeping its promises, and needs to make sure it's not having a negative impact on communities in the watershed.

I would also like to see more on economic development. There's the economic development corporation [the Catskill Watershed Corporation] and the city money that's been pledged toward economic growth, toward small businesses and projects in the watershed, and I would like to see that money move quickly to support small businesses and economic development projects in our community.

That's something that I've been working on hands-on through Hudson River Ventures, the company that I started. We've been partnering with small businesses throughout our district, and I would like to see the New York City economic development funds be put to good use by supporting the small businesses in our communities.

I know that there are significant resources that have been pledged there, that need to get out into the community.

When I talk to small businesses throughout the district, the issue of access to capital continues to be a big concern. The Catskill Watershed Corporation is sitting on the resources there, and I think there are projects out there that are worthy of economic development funds, and I would like to make sure that those projects are getting looked at, and that the city and the corporation is being a solid partner for economic growth. Because obviously we've got work to do to lower unemployment and bolster our economy in the area. If they're serious about helping out that front, the development corporation is an important piece of that.

One of the things that I've heard is that [the CWC has] trouble sourcing projects. Just as someone who does this work every day--this is the work we do--you've got to get out in the communities and talk to small business owners and make sure they're sourcing the projects for entrepreneurs and small businesses that want to grow. Finding the best economic development projects is not easy, but it's important and that's their mission, and I certainly hope that they continue to support projects. The vast majority of the jobs in our area are coming from small businesses that are growing. I think they could be an important partner in that.

I think there's more that we could do to pull small businesses together and help folks like the [CWC] to provide access to capital. If one of the issues really is sourcing the best projects, then I think you could help convene people and make sure the left hand knows that the right hand is doing.

One of the value-adds that one can provide as a congressman is that convening power, making sure that the folks who can provide access to capital are talking to small businesses, they're talking to town supervisors, they're talking to county development officials, because that's how these projects ultimately get cobbled together.

I ended up investing in Bread Alone when they did their expansion, and I got connected to them through Mike Hein, the Ulster County Executive, and his economic development team. That was a great project, and we were thrilled to be introduced in a moment where they needed to grow.

I think similarly for other small businesses, when they're at that stage, it's just really important that they know who's out there and what their resources are from banks to the [CWC] to other private investors, because often it is overwhelming for a small business or a small community that's looking for access to capital and may not know exactly all the resources that are out there and are available to them.


Guns are a key political issue in the Catskills region. In 2013, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo implemented an aggressive gun control law, the NY SAFE Act, many in the Catskills were outraged. Both candidates emphasize their respect for the Second Amendment. Gibson's credentials as a veteran give him gravitas on the issue. Eldridge cites his experience using guns on a ranch at the prestigious Deep Springs College in the desert of California for teaching him about guns.


I'm a gun owner myself. I used to work on a cattle ranch in California in the high Sierra Desert and learned how to shoot when I was living on a the cattle ranch. I think that we need to find a common-sense balance between respecting the tradition of gun ownership in our community and hunting and also the need to protect innocent lives.

So I support universal background checks. I think we need to close the loopholes that still exist in terms of online gun sales and gun show sales in other states, and I support anti-trafficking legislation that Senator [Kirsten] Gilliband has introduced. A lot of the firearms used in New York State that actually end up doing harm come from other states. I think we can respect the Second Amendment, respect the right to hunt and own a gun, but also try to do more prevent the kind of travesties we've seen at schools and at homes throughout the country.

Our congressman will not sign on to the universal background check legislation [HR 1565] that exists in the House--bi-partisan legislation--and I think that's frustrating, because I think that the vast majority of gun owners support background checks. I have conversations about this every day on the campaign trail. I think there's a lot of agreement on that issue, but he won't sign onto that bill. 


In upstate New York, what Eldridge is part of is an effort to step on our rights and our freedoms. He's cloaking that.

Up here, we're a firm believer in the Bill of Rights. That includes the First Amendment, and I think there's strong unanimity there, and the Fourth Amendment, and I've stood strong against the PATRIOT Act and I've stood strong against CISPA, and the Second Amendment is part of that. It's the right to keep and bear arms. And he's not fooling anybody. If he thinks that he's fooling people, that people who believe in the Second Amendment, that somehow he believes in that, he's not fooling them.

As it relates to background checks, folks that believe in the Second Amendment believe in background checks. We do. But that doesn't mean you agree to specific bills that have flaws. So I wonder how much he even knows about the bill [HR 1565 and its Senate version, 649] that he's talking about. I've read it page for page. I have critiqued it. And it's a matter of public record; it's on my Facebook.

But I'll just tell you this: One of the problems with the bill is that it really doesn't allow for due process when it comes to the mental health portion of the bill. So while it does provide a carve-out for veterans, and being a veteran myself I deeply appreciate that, every American is entitled to due process, not just veterans. So that's an issue here.

I've already made it clear that I support background checks, and that's what my voting record shows. He's pointing to a speck of a bill that's never been voted. We have increased the amount of funding for background checks. That helps. And there have been at least two votes on that. I voted "yes" on both of them.

He's not fooling anyone. He doesn't support the Second Amendment in the manner that people up here want to see supported. And his argument about not supporting background checks doesn't square with the facts.


Both Gibson and Eldridge cite the need to expand access to high-speed broadband internet in the Catskills. Gibson points to his record of promoting the issue, while Eldridge makes it the centerpiece of his plan to boost economic development in the region.


We've been working that issue. I'm not satisfied with the level of support from the federal government. There are two basic approaches right now: one that I call the ground game, it's usually two yards and a cloud of dust. That's through the Farm Bill, and specifically through the rural utilities services. And it does provide grants and it provides low-interest loans.

The big money is in the Connect America Fund. The Connect America Fund falls under the FCC [Federal Communications Commission], and the issue there is the first round. Over $4.5 billion are available.

Here's the problem. It's not used, because in the first round, the rules were largely sending that money to big companies, and the big companies are profit-motive driven, and so that's why a lot of that money sat. We did have one company in New York State that did use it--Frontier, and we appreciated that.

We need to change the rules so that small companies can get access to the Connect America Fund, because those employees live with us. They're in our communities.

Here's the good news: They have released a draft rule that they're going to change the rules for this program to allow for our small companies, our family-owned small companies and our co-ops, like the Delaware Electrical Cooperative and the Otsego Electric Cooperative. This is encouraging. And this is what I've been advocating. I've been advocating with the Obama administration to make that change.

Editors note: Most of the new rules for the the Connect America Fund went into effect in September 2014.


I think that the federal government has not been the partner that is needs to be for economic growth and development in our region. We're living right now with the least productive Congress in the history of our country.

One thing that the government has historically led the charge on is investing in our infrastructure. If you look at New York State, on the whole we have a "D" on our infrastructure.

The towns, the county, the state aren't going to do that on their own. I would like to see robust investment in infrastructure, and would add in to that also high-tech infrastructure and things like high-speed internet and broadband.

About 10 percent of our district does not have high-speed internet and broadband access. I think that's a significant problem in 2014 where our communities are at risk of falling behind if they don't have access to high-speed internet. The right of access to high-speed internet should be a right in 2014.

It's important for economic growth, and for education. I've talked to parents in Sullivan County who have told me that their kids have come home from school and have been unable to do a homework assignment because that homework involved watching a YouTube video, and they weren't able to load it because they have dial-up internet. That's a big problem. I know that Congressman Gibson has talked about the issue, but we have not seen the kind of action that is needed. The conversation has been circling around very small loan-guarantee programs that won't provide the kind of universal access that we need.


Hydraulic fracturing has been a political hot potato in the Catskills for years. In New York State, the issue has been consigned to regulatory limbo, as the Cuomo administration has put it on indefinite hold. A vocal anti-fracking movement has deep roots in the Catskills. Gibson is open to fracking, but cites his record of asking for increased transparency and regulation of the industry. Eldridge outspokenly opposes fracking.


I'm not aware of anyone in the entire district who makes more money on fracking than [Eldridge].

I'm very concerned about the environment. I've been recognized by the Environmental Defense Fund. The big difference in this race on the issue of fracking is that my opponent is making profits hand over first from fracking.

My wife and I don't have any stocks and bonds. Because of the investments he has--he is part owner of Exxon, Halliburton--he makes huge profits.

He may say he's opposed to fracking, but that's not what his money says.

It's a state issue as to whether or not we're going to do fracking. He's trying to make this a federal issue.

As it relates to a federal role, I'm working to make sure that we protect our water and our air. I'm the Republican co-author of the FRAC Act, which has two basic points. One is that there must be disclosure of chemicals, and the second is that there's a requirement to comply with the Safe Water Drinking Act.

There's been one vote on the issue of fracking since I've been in Congress since 2011. The question was whether or not there should be federal regulation. The vote was to remove federal regulations, and I was one of two Republicans in the country that voted "no" on that issue. So as far as what people in upstate New York are looking for in a federal representative in the United States Congress, they have a leader that is protecting their water and their air.

I'm not aware of another Republican in the country that's being supported by the Environmental Defense Fund. There isn't any Republican in the country that has a stronger record on protecting the environment and on clean and renewable energy.


I oppose fracking in our region, and Congressman Gibson has sent out letters to his constituents supporting fracking.

I don't think we should have it. I do not believe we can do it safely. I think we cannot put our water at risk, we cannot put our public health at risk. Just talking to the guys at the Catskill Brewery, and I was up at Ommegang Brewery, they've said to me very clearly, if we frack in our region, they're going to leave, because the water is so important to their business. They will not stick around if we're putting our water at risk.

I also think it's the wrong way to go about economic growth. You look at the strengths of our region, whether it's agriculture or tourism or small businesses who are growing, they would be put at risk by fracking, by putting our water at risk, and by the damage that it would do to our infrastructure.

Our congressman has not only supported it, but he's take thousands and thousands of dollars from companies like Exxon Mobil, the largest fracking company in our country, and then he has supported fracking. This is one reason why I'm a loud advocate for campaign finance reform, and why I'm not taking corporate PAC money in my campaign. Voters in our region and voters throughout the country deserve someone who's going to do what's right for them, not for big corporations, and the issue of environmental protection is obviously a critical example of that.

There are certain things you can do in Congress. We've got to make sure we're disclosing the chemicals that are being used. But I think that as a member of Congress I could be a very loud advocate on this. This is something that I disagree with President Obama on. I think that as a member of Congress, we can make sure regulations are in place, and I think we can talk about bans.

I do think Congress has a role to protect our environment, to not only enforce the rules that exist now but also look at new rules we might need to prevent harm.

We've got to shift to renewable energy. We can't continue to rely on the dirty energy that we are. We need a much more quick transition to renewable energy, to energy that's going to protect our environment. And we've got to do something about climate change.

If we have these wells that we're fracking and we're releasing methane into our atmosphere and making the climate change problem worse, I think that's ridiculous and I think that generations that come after us deserve a lot better than that.